An excerpt from Pulling Together: Foundations Guide by Kory Wilson
Indian Act, 1876
The most important single act affecting First Nations is the Indian Act, passed by the federal government of the new Dominion of Canada in 1876 and still in existence today. The Indian Act was another attempt to assimilate First Nations people into Canadian society as quickly as possible. Under section 91(24) of the British North America Act (1867), the federal government was given jurisdiction or control over “Indians and Lands reserved for Indians,” providing exclusive authority over Indian affairs. You can read the complete Indian Act online.
Who is an “Indian”?
In the Indian Act, the Government of Canada defines who is an “Indian.” If the government defines you as an “Indian,” you are said to have “Status.” For this reason, “Indian” is a legal word, but not one that many Indigenous people are comfortable using to describe themselves.
Not all people who identify as First Nations are Status Indian under the Indian Act. Over time there have been many different laws defining who is and who is not eligible for status. Defining who is and who is not an “Indian” is challenging and complicated. “Indians” are the only group of people where the Government of Canada decides who belongs and who does not.
Status and non-Status
Historically, the Indian Act applied only to Indigenous Peoples that the Crown recognized as “Indians.” It excluded Métis and Inuit, and created a group of people who were not entitled to Indian status, referred to as “non-Status Indians.” “Status” determines who the government considers to be entitled to rights that apply to some, but not all, First Nation Peoples in Canada, including:
- the granting of reserves and the rights associated with them
- an extended hunting season
- a less restricted right to bear arms
- some medical coverage
- more freedom in the management of gaming and tobacco
The Indian Act made enfranchisement legally compulsory. Under the Indian Act from 1876 until 1955, Status Indians would lose their legal and ancestral identities (or Indian Status) for a variety of reasons, especially if they were women. Enfranchisement was offered to men (although if they were married, their wives and children would be considered enfranchised too).
Until as recently as 1982, the legal status of First Nations women was affected by who they married. First Nation women with Status lost their Indian Status when they married a non-Status man. First Nations women also lost their Indian Status when they married Métis or non-Indigenous men. All the children in these marriages would not be entitled to Indian Status.
Women also lost their status if their husbands died or abandoned them, in which case the woman would:
- lose the right to live on reserve land and have access to band resources,
- not necessarily become a member of her previous band again,
- be involuntarily enfranchised, losing her legal Indian status rights; her children
could also be involuntarily enfranchised as a result.
Further discrimination against women
Under the Indian Act, First Nations women were also banned from voting and running in Chief and Council elections. The oppression of First Nations women under the Indian Act resulted in long-term poverty, marginalization and violence, which they are still trying to overcome today.
Inuit and Métis women were also oppressed and discriminated against, and prevented from:
- serving in the Canadian armed forces
- getting a college or university degree
- leaving their communities for long periods (e.g., for employment)
- becoming an ordained minister
- becoming a professional (e.g., a doctor or lawyer)
Impacts of the Indian Act: A timeline
Over the years, the Indian Act has legislated extreme changes in the lives of Indigenous Peoples. The timeline below provides some examples.
Federal government assumes responsibility for all “Indians and lands reserved for Indians”
Canada became a country with the passing of the British North America Act. In Section 91(24) the federal government (Canadian government) was assigned responsibility for all “Indians and lands reserved for Indians.”
Indian Act becomes law
The Indian Act became law, and Indigenous governance systems were replaced with elected or appointed Band Councils. Women were not allowed to participate.
Residential schools become official policy
Residential schools became the official government policy for educating First Nations children. Residential schools forcibly removed First Nations children from their families and communities to attend distant schools, where many died and many more suffered abuse.
The Indian Act banned ceremonies such as the potlatch, ghost dance, and sun dance. People were arrested for performing them and their ceremonial materials were taken away by the government. The effects of this prohibition are still felt today.
Reserve land taken from bands without consent
The government could take reserve land from bands without their consent and (between 1918 and 1951) could also lease reserve land to settlers without the band’s agreement.
Traditional and ceremonial clothing banned
It was illegal for Indigenous Peoples to wear their traditional and ceremonial clothing.
Status Indians barred from seeking legal advice, fundraising, or meeting in groups
It was illegal for Status Indians to hire lawyers or seek legal advice, fundraise for land claims, or meet in groups. Many had to stop organizing, but others continued to do so secretly to fight for their rights.
Political organizing and cultural activities legalized
It was no longer illegal for Indigenous Peoples to organize politically to fight for their rights. And performing cultural activities was no longer illegal.
First Nations people no longer forced to give up their “status”
It was no longer possible for the government to force people to give up their “Indian status” and lose their Indigenous rights. In the past, First Nations people could lose their Indian status through marriage, for example. And before 1960, a person had to give up his or her Indian status in order to vote federally.
An interactive version of the above timeline can be found here.
Amendments to the Indian Act
The problem is we, as Indigenous peoples, have not been dealt with fairly, and also the governments have not dealt with the Indigenous issues the way we would like them to have.
– Elijah Harper (1949–2013; Oji-Cree; Canadian politician, first Treaty Indian elected as a provincial politician, Chief of the Red Sucker Lake community, recipient of the Order of Manitoba and the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award, and a key player in the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord)
Amendments to the Indian Act in 1951 made it no longer illegal for First Nations people to:
- gather in groups of more than three
- leave the reserve without a pass
- hire a lawyer
- own property
- practise their culture
But many of the more harmful provisions still remained, including:
- the definition of who is an “Indian”
- the reserve system
- residential school policies
- an imposed system of government
As of 2017, all of these provisions still remain, except residential schools.
In 1985, Bill C-31 was passed, amending the Indian Act to bring it into line with gender equality under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There were three major goals:
- to address gender discrimination in the Indian Act
- to restore Indian status to those who had been forcibly enfranchised
- to allow First Nations to control their own membership as a step toward self-government
The Indian Act today
The Indian Act is still in force, which is a major reason why the use of the offensive term “Indian” persists today. Note: The Indian Act uses the terms “Indian” and “White” as these were the terms used at the time. These are not terms that you should use in your conversations.